Tech

White House Asks Silicon Valley To Help Troll ISIS

Senior representatives from Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google will discuss ways to counteract ISIS propaganda on the web.

On Friday, Apple CEO Tim Cook will be among the tech industry heavyweights to meet with White House officials to discuss plans to neutralize and counter ISIS recruitment efforts online, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Set in San Jose, the meeting — the details of which were first reported by Reuters — will focus on ways to hinder the ability of terrorists to radicalize individuals through social networks and the broader web. Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google are among the technology companies slated to attend, according to people familiar with the meeting. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency are among those attending from Washington, which also includes Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and FBI Director James Comey. The representatives will also discuss how their platforms can be used to help others promote alternative views to undercut ISIS.

“The White House sees Silicon Valley as an integral part of fighting the propaganda from ISIL and other groups,” a White House official involved in national security told BuzzFeed News, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “There needs to be a concerted effort to fight the ISIL propaganda.”

Following the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Silicon Valley has come under increased pressure by U.S. officials and members of Congress to do more to aid American law enforcement. The government has asked technology companies to take aggressive steps to block the communications, videos, and social media accounts of militants around the world.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, perhaps the most vocal lawmaker on this issue, has called for legislation compelling social media companies to notify law enforcement of terrorist activity on their networks. Civil liberties groups, wary of new state surveillance powers and the infringement of free speech, characterize such proposals as misguided censorship, with tech companies acting as government informants and arbiters of the First Amendment.

Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, argue that they maintain a zero tolerance policy for the promotion of terrorism and violence on their platforms.

The high-profile meeting follows President Barack Obama’s remarks in December, in which he offered a broad outline of his plan to defeat ISIS. As part of that plan, he said he would “urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.”

Just hours earlier, Hillary Clinton had called ISIS the world’s most effective recruiter. “We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS,” she said, referring to the American tech industry and its favorite buzzword.

While the White House has generally been conciliatory toward tech, one of the president’s top law enforcement officials, FBI Director James Comey, has remained a steadfast opponent of Silicon Valley on a related issue: encryption.

Joined by many U.S. lawmakers, Comey has used the recent terror attacks to reignite the debate over the mass adoption of encrypted devices. He’s asked the tech industry to consider altering its encryption standards in order to give law enforcement the ability to decode private messages.

“They are pushing this through Twitter,” Comey said during a Congressional hearing last summer, referring to ISIS recruitment efforts that begin on public channels and then vanish into encrypted messaging apps. “So its no longer the case that someone who is troubled needs to go find this propaganda and this motivation. It buzzes in their pocket. There is a device — almost a devil on their shoulder — all day long, saying: ‘Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.’”

While the meeting will revolve around social media and radicalization, it’s likely encryption will come up. The two issues are frequently bundled together in Congress and in public debate.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has tried to combat terror-related content with more content. The State Department’s information campaign, “Think Again Turn Away,” was designed to critique ISIS messaging using the same popular platforms frequented by terrorists. However, the program has been criticized as unimaginative and ineffective.

“There are easy tactics [to] get more voice and virality to messaging that we are not using as a government,” Sen. Cory Booker said during a hearing on the subject last year entitled Jihad 2.0. “Look at their fancy memes compared to what we are not doing.”


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Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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